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How to find – and train – the right budtenders for your dispensary

by Omar Sacirbey

Danielle Schumacher is the office manager for a prominent Bay Area physician serving a large number of pediatric and geriatric medical marijuana patients. She worries about what happens to those patients once they leave and buy their medicine.

“Our biggest challenge is once the doctor has spent an hour with the patient and explained to them exactly what to buy and how to dose it, we never know what’s going to happen when they go to the dispensary,” said Schumacher, who is also a San Francisco-based partner in THC Staffing, a cannabis-focused human resources firm. “Even though we send them to particular places where we have had a relationship for years, it’s hit or miss who they’re going to get behind the counter.”

Her concerns are well-grounded. A recent study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research found that 80% of dispensary workers who were surveyed did not receive any training about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, while 45% said they received no training. Consequently, many budtenders end up giving inaccurate advice to patients.

That’s bad for both an individual business trying to establish credibility with its clientele, as well as an MMJ industry trying to gain legitimacy, particularly within medical circles, not to mention patients. Good budtenders are key to the success of any medical cannabis industry. So it’s vital for dispensary owners to choose their budtenders carefully – and train them thoroughly after they come aboard.

What You Want in a Budtender

Because cannabis is still a relatively new industry in many states, finding budtenders with previous experience is hard.

Many managers responsible for hiring at dispensaries believe that experience in a medical office – as a technician, nurse or receptionist – is the most helpful attribute when finding a good budtender. That’s because the candidate has worked or interacted with patients.

Retail experience is also helpful but doesn’t carry the same weight as the medical office experience, dispensary owners and industry observers said.

“When you’re reception or budtending you’re hearing patients’ stories, and they expect medical advice,” Schumacher said. “Even though you’re not a trained medical professional you still need to be able to handle hearing their stories, and you have to be able to respond somehow to their expectations of getting medical advice.”

Sage Peterson – CEO of Canuvo, a dispensary in Biddeford, Maine – found that people with a social work background also make good dispensary budtenders. In fact, three of her six budtenders have social work degrees. Because they’ve gone through rigorous academic training, they’re disciplined and organized. And, having worked in a social service setting, they understand that a budtender-patient relationship comes with more responsibilities than the salesperson-customer relationship at a department store or some other type of retailer.

“They’re good at listening to and showing compassion to patients, and they take the work very seriously,” Peterson said.

The ideal candidate, in addition to medical office or retail experience, will also have some knowledge of cannabis. Some dispensary owners gauge that knowledge through the application process, while others wait until the interview process.

For example, Canuvo’s application asks potential budtenders about their relationship to cannabis. Most applicants don’t answer that question, Peterson said, and are rejected. She said an applicant must be able to demonstrate at least some connection to the plant and, ideally, some knowledge of it. As an example, Peterson said it would be tough for a vegetarian waiter to sell the virtues of a juicy steak – much like a non-cannabis user might find it more difficult to discuss the qualities of the plant or a particular strain.

“If a patient comes in and wants to have a deeper dialogue, they need to have a connection with somebody,” Peterson said. “Because all of our evidence is anecdotal, patients need to be able to share their stories with someone who will get them.”

There are other less measurable traits. Budtenders must not only know how to be personable and polite with patients – that’s easy – but they also need to know how to deal with unruly customers and tense situations. For example, when Canuvo first opened, supplies were often short, and Peterson couldn’t always provide all the cannabis patients wanted.

“You have to be good at delivering bad news. You have to be able to diffuse certain situations,” Peterson said.

Julio Valentin, CEO of Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, New Jersey, employs a simpler measure.

“If (the budtender applicant) makes me feel more comfortable, I know they’ll make the patient feel more comfortable,” Valentin said.

Training Time

While budtenders come in with certain experiences that will help them on the job, training is an indispensable element to a successful, and happy, budtending staff.

For example, while Peterson’s former social workers have no problem listening, they sometimes need help with the sales side of the job.

“Not to sound harsh, but I can’t have them talking to a patient for an hour,” Peterson said.

“I just need to give them sales training so they can wrap a session up,” she added. “I tell them to listen for about 15 minutes and then wrap it up because it’s hard to absorb more than that.”

On its property, the Sanctuary Alternative Treatment Center in Plymouth, New Hampshire, has a house that’s separate from the dispensary and used for training employees, including the company’s “patient care advisers” (PCAs).

New PCAs receive a day-long training program that covers marijuana’s chemical makeup, cannabinoid and terpene profiles and strain data as well as how to interact and behave with patients.

“Our PCAs love the training,” said David Shibley, manager of patient care advisers at Sanctuary. “They feel a lot more prepared, they feel more confident in their talks with patients.”

While Peterson has been mulling the use of a formalized curriculum from a cannabis institute to teach budtenders, she believes Canuvo is small enough that she can continue to provide training in-house. There are standards and procedures that all employee need to know, but training employees in-house allows the trainer and trainee to concentrate on weaknesses.

“Not everything is an SOP,” she said, referring to a standard operating procedure. “There’s got to be some flexibility and creativity in how we approach things.”

New employees also shadow veteran ones, watching how they interact with patients, what kind of questions are asked and how they’re answered.

Canuvo also trains budtenders about the products. While budtenders are experts on strains, they may be less familiar with delivery methods that pediatric or geriatric patients might prefer over traditional delivery methods like smoking or vaping.

“They need to know why you would recommend a salve over a lip balm,” Peterson said.

She added that one of the best ways to train a new budtender, or even an experienced one, is role playing – pretending to be a new or unusual patient.

“I teach them to ask a set of investigatory questions. ‘What do you believe is your challenge? What do you want to achieve by using this medicine?’”

Schumacher agreed.

“Just ask them a lot of questions and see how they respond. ‘How would you handle an elderly patient who’s never used cannabis before?’ A good answer would be to be very careful with the method and dose, and start with a low dose. And if you’re not sure refer them back to the doctor,” Schumacher said.

Indeed, one of the most important skills a budtender can have is to admit not knowing an answer.

“That’s really important for a budtender to be able to say, ‘I’m not sure. Hopefully your doctor can answer that,’” Schumacher said.

Continuing Education

While new employees will need more training than veterans, continuing education for budtenders is also an important way to better serve patients and to make them feel valued.

“It’s really hard to keep up with the science and all the different strains. So I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a budtender to keep up with all of that and know how to give medical advice,” Schumacher said.

She recommends that dispensary owners, every month or so, invite a cannabis doctor or other expert who can talk about marijuana’s medicinal applications as well as additional issues that are of interest to patients.

Schumacher also recommends that managers take the time to find and prepare educational materials for their staff. This can include a summary of recent studies about the effects of medical marijuana on certain ailments or information about a new product line.

“It takes time,” Schumacher said. “But your budtenders will get a lot out of it.”